Breaking The Language Barrier Wherever You Travel

musicHave you had an experience during one of your holiday or vacation in a foreign land that you had a hard time explaining what you want from a vendor or shop? Had a hard time bargaining for an item? Got lost because it’s hard to get directions? There are countries that doesn’t use English as one of their means of communications and this becomes a language barrier. Some of these non English speaking states are even developed countries and yet their citizens hardly speak English (i.e. Germany, Switzerland) , how much more for those premium destinations in developing countries like China. Check out these big tips on how to break the language barrier and make your dream vacation less worrisome.


Flash Cards (Shopping)

You don’t have to buy, you can make your own. If you have plans of buying something and you think that the people in your destination knows little or no English at all, bring a flash card or a cut out of the picture you want to buy. Print one if you can’t find one in a cartolina or laminate it if you have to. Different languages have different terms, let’s take the Pineapple as an example: it is “Ananas” in a lot of other languages like Czech and German, but it is Pinapple in English and piña in Tagalog and Spanish. A work around on this is by finding the local translation (and pronunciation) of these items, but this only works if you have a good memory and/or planning to be a linguist. There may be hundreds of apps available for smartphones that can give you any translation of a word at a press of a finger, but you don’t want to flash your phone in public and in the preying eyes of pick pockets and thieves, wouldn’t you? A piece of paper will mean nothing to them and no one will take interest in a photo of a piece of fruit right?


calculator-168360_640Calculator (Shopping)

Number is a universal language. It is translated faster than any other words in all languages because numbers, most of the time, means business. So if you want to haggle or get better discounts in shops and store wherever you go, always bring a small calculator. There are cheap calculators in Japan Home stores, streets of Quiapo, Divisoria and Baclaran, and even National Bookstores. If the prices of the items are displayed in different characters other than the Hindu Arabic numerals, point at the object and then point at the calculator, give the calculator to the saleslady or salesman and check what he pressed. Voila! Instant communication! Want to get a discount? press the amount you want to buy the product and show it back to the lady/man: nod means “yes, ok, deal”, a head shake means “no” and perhaps they would get your calculator again and renegotiate the price.


map-640Traditional Maps (Travelling)

With the increasing technology available these days, why do people still get lost? Well, partly this is because the names of the places are either in a different translation, they were written in a different character without any English translation, or the person you are asking directions with cannot translate it to you in a manner you could understand. How do you solve this problem? One quick and easy solution is available right at the point of your arrival – in the airport. Look for maps, get one in English and get one in the local dialect. This way, you can refer something with the locals that both of you could understand. Another way is: before you leave your home, plan and track the places you will be going to through Google Maps. Print out the directions from point A to point B, print out another for point B to point C and so on.


Pen and paper (Whole trip)

It’s hard to play charades every time you need to ask something. They might not get it that quick (or worst, they don’t know how to play charades). Get a pen and paper, and draw what you need and hopefully they get it. It is still best to bring those flash cards (as mentioned above), because they come in full color and people seeing it would easily identify it. But just in case, there are pens/pencils and papers in hotel rooms or front desk that you could ask/get and bring along with you. Just make sure your drawing is very close to exactly what you are referring to. A friend of ours told us a story about a tourist trying to buy Tamarind (Sampalok) in Thailand, which is what the country is also famous of. Unable to say Tamarind in the local language (Tamarind in Thai is ????? or Makh?m) and unable to express the fruit to the vendor, the tourist drew an outline of a tamarind in a piece of paper – in black and white. So the vendor, thinking that he/she now completely understand, directed the tourist to the nearest toilet. Hopefully the tourist’s frustration turned into a comedy.


Research (Whole trip)

I know you’ve worked a lot for this vacation, planned it, and want to just relax all throughout the trip. But it doesn’t hurt to check what the local currency looks like and learn  how do you greet “good morning” in the local language or “thank you”. These little details will help establish rapport (with the greetings), make a good impression and help make business dealings easier with you. Knowing the local currency denomination would help you know how much you are paying and how much change you need to expect (less worries for you if you are being fooled). I had a problem with the currency in Vietnam when we went to Halong Bay, I think all their paper currency comes in thousands (with 3 zeros at the end), yet the prices in some of their street vendors and market omits the last zeros. I was buying a bottled juice from a street vendor, I asked “how much” (yes in English) and I got no answer. I pointed at the food and made an “OK” sign, the vendor held up a palm at me. Thinking it was just 5 Vietnamese Dong, I pulled out a 500. The vendor waved (meaning it wasn’t the right money). I got a 5,000 and still, the vendor waved as if saying no, with brows furrowed already. I showed her my bills and she got 50,000 and then smiled. I smiled back and then walked away. When I got in a market, I saw a coffee shop and to my surprise, coffee are sold 5,000 Dong by the cup and the same bottled juice I got was only sold for 5,000 Dong as well. I got back at the street vendor and tried my best to demand my change. After 15 minutes of a silent argument (I wasn’t even sure that was possible but it did happen), she gave back 40,000 Dong to me (5,000 Dong was for the bottle deposit because I smashed the glass bottle on the floor in front of her – I got a cut on my palm, nobody else got hurt). I could have saved myself the trouble if only I knew about the zeros. Now I know 🙂

Breaking the language barrier is easier than breaking the speed of sound. All you need to do is be equipped with the inexpensive tools that would bridge the gap and keep an open mind. How about you? Have you experienced language barrier in some of your trips?

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